Aghast

Philip Booth

  • Stravinsky Seen and Heard by Hans Keller and Milein Cosman
    Toccata Press, 127 pp, £5.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 907689 01 9
  • Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music by Léonie Rosenstiel
    Norton, 427 pp, £16.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 393 01495 9

The husband-and-wife team of Hans Keller and Milein Cosman looks at Stravinsky in his later years from two very different points of view: on the one hand, that of the rational music critic and analyst; on the other, that of the subjective visual artist. Milein Cosman’s vigorous sketches, made during the composer’s visits to London between 1958 and 1965, occupy over half the book. Although there are more sketches than seems necessary, they capture marvellously the hunched, almost repressed posture characteristic of the composer (even as a younger man), and thus lend support to some of Keller’s psychological hypotheses. This physical attitude is all the more noticeable for its juxtaposition here with the crisp, refined figure of Jean Cocteau, a contrast which justifies Cocteau’s inclusion amongst the sketches far more compellingly than Cosman’s practical explanation that he was involved in a performance of Oedipus Rex. There is one eloquent and highly economical sketch in which Cocteau’s disdain for the chair on which he is sitting seems to reach beyond the physically possible. Alas, there is nothing quite so telling among the sketches of Stravinsky himself.

Keller’s contribution consists of 39 pages of original text, together with an article reprinted from Tempo (1955) which introduces a functional analysis of the central section of Stravinsky’s In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. The index to this material occupies a further four and a half pages, and contains such fascinating entries as ‘sadism, Webern’s in-turned’. The book is generally superlative in tone, and Keller’s fondness for verbal inflation leads him down some very dubious paths. Thus Webern is a ‘great minor master’, Stravinsky’s switch to serial composition is ‘the profoundest surprise in the history of music’, and his genius, finally, is not merely unique but ‘the uniquest of the lot’. Keller’s concern here, as elsewhere in his writings and his radio talks, is to convince us that we are in the presence of ideas of supreme importance which have inexplicably been overlooked or at least underrated by duller minds. In this particular case, the oversight is a failure by Stravinsky scholars to account psychologically for the composer’s espousal of serial technique in the teeth of his own very vocal hostility towards Schoenberg. This oversight, which might induce a sense of mild surprise in lesser men, leaves Keller ‘aghast’.

For Keller there are two kinds of music: namely, music and unmusic, the latter being the result of non-aural inspiration worked out according to non-aural principles – for example, a mathematically structured piece based on a note-row ‘selected’ for some particular quality such as angularity, in which the row will therefore tend to be unrecognisable in performance. Keller considers rhythm (and hence also melody) to be an indispensable adjunct of musical inspiration, and the list of 20th-century composers whom Keller considers to be ‘great’ – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten and Skalkottas – only includes composers whose material is generally recognisable to the ear, no matter how complex the technical processes involved. (Readers whose favourite 20th-century composer has been left out of this list will search in vain for any clues as to what else, in Keller’s view, constitutes ‘greatness’. Yet the impression remains that he considers greatness to be a precisely measurable phenomenon.)

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